Cooperatives: As American as Apple Pie

By Phil Kenkel
Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair
Oklahoma State University


The first recognized cooperative business in the United States was founded in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire became the first mutual fire insurance company in America and it continues to operate today.

Philadelphia was a relatively small town in 1752 with approximately 15,000 inhabitants and 8 volunteer fire companies. Fire prevention played a large role in the planning of the city. Streets were wider than average, and brick and stone were common building elements. Despite preventive measures and the efforts of firefighters, fires did still occur. The cooperative provided residents a much needed safety net.

Before accepting a property for insurance, the company sent surveyors out to inspect each building. The board of directors reviewed these reports and then set the rate. The cooperative set new standards for building houses because it refused to insure houses that were considered fire hazards. The criteria they used to evaluate buildings would one day be reworked into both building codes and zoning laws. When the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, they met in Carpenter’s Hall, a building owned by a carpenter’s cooperatives and insured by the Philadelphia Contributionship.

Today, over 350 million Americans are members of mutual insurance agencies, cooperatives and credit unions. Those Americans can be proud to be part of an industry first established in the United States by one of our nation’s founding fathers.